A Dh40m programme to track livestock is being introduced by the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority to monitor the health, ownership and origin of animals with electronic tagging devices.
Livestock tagging system confuses farmers
ABU DHABI // When Abdullah al Amimi returned to his Liwa farm one day this winter, he discovered that all his animals - 15 camels and 200 goats - had been tagged in his absence.
"No one told me why," he said. "Why the label was put on, what the advantages are, and what are they looking for."
Instead, he said, all he has heard are "rumours".
His confusion is shared by many farmers, surprised to find themselves part of a Dh40m programme by the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA) to track livestock movements.
Despite the authority's efforts to spread the message, Mr al Amimi said he has been given no brochures, and the answers he has received make little sense.
When he asked a slaughterhouse what would happen to the tags after the animals had been killed, he was told they would be sent to an agency in Abu Dhabi that tracked the number of cattle.
The programme is meant to enable the authority to track not only the country of origin, but also the health, ownership and slaughter of any animal. In theory, that should help the authority to spot and curtail any outbreaks of disease, since officials will be able to identify animals that have been in contact with those found to be sick.
The tags function like a social security number, as well as a vaccination and medical record.
While the ADFCA is keen for the country to produce more of its own meat - and healthier animals mean more meat - some farmers say it should be taking a more active role.
Mohammed al Mazrouei, also from Liwa, said farmers needed more help from the ADFCA to access commercial butchers.
"All they do is import from the outside," he said. "But if a local farmer wants to sell his animal for butchery he has to do it himself."
The benefits of the programme were obvious, he said, but the processes less clear.
"I don't exactly know what the procedure is if an animal dies - I mean, camels have the microchip inside their skin so we can't take that out."
ADFCA has tried to raise awareness, deploying an Arabic, English and Urdu speaker with each of the 58 teams of taggers. It has also printed brochures in Arabic outlining what farmers need to do.
When an animal dies or is slaughtered, they need to give the tag to the butcher or vet. For camels, the owner must inform a vet, who will remove the microchip.
When an animal is sold, the new owner must update the information at the clinic.
However, according to Mohammed al Reyaysa, the communications director at the authority, some farmers are still removing the tags, or failing to report deaths.
"We're asking people to be more responsible for this, because it might cause consequences to other services and feeding programmes," he said.
If a tag is removed, the animal will not be re-tagged - depriving its owner of free veterinary services and feed subsidies.
The database is meant to correct an imbalance in a subsidy programme that offers cheap animal fodder to holders of blue cards. Previously, many of the cardholders had ceased to own animals, or lent their cards to other people.
Without an accurate head count, there was a risk that subsidies would continue to be unfairly distributed. But unless farmers understand the programme, Mr al Amimi fears they are unlikely to ask their farm hands to take better care of the tags.
"If a label falls out they workers will not be interested in taking it and keeping it in a safe place, unless I can explain to them why it's important," he said.
It is not the first time the ADFCA has struggled to get the message out to farmers about how a new programme will affect them.
Last September, a subsidy programme for thirsty Rhodes grass was phased out, but farmers complained they were not given adequate guidance about what they should plant instead, or what kind of compensation they would be offered.
The solution - a Dh90,000 bonus for farmers who modernised their practices and joined the Farmer's Services Centre (FSC), an independent body charged with improving Abu Dhabi's farms - was eventually well received, but only after the FSC established a call centre to contact and register farmers. The process has been slow, the business director of the centre, Ray Moules, conceded last month. Many of the call lists include wrong or disconnected numbers.
But he insists the authority is realistic about how long it takes to put changes in place. For now, he says, no one will be fined for removing the tags. "We're in a stage of teaching people about the importance of the programme," he said.
Enforcement, he added, would come later.